Writing in the Time of Covid
(How One Story Saved Me)
If you’re like me, you’re sick of the news. Of the platitudes and scare-the-crap-out-of-you updates. You recoil at your own inner chaos or the belief that if you’d only accept the new reality, you wouldn’t struggle so much. That if you were a stronger person, you’d get off the couch and accomplish something.
I’ve been in a spiral for weeks. So I cheered as I read an article today in The New York Times entitled, “Stop Trying to be Productive.” I mainlined every word, grateful that someone wasn’t shaming me for not muscling through the Covid trauma, encouraging me to get on with it and produce just like I always have.
Still in my red flannel bathrobe, I walked toward my home office, where two unfinished essays and the third draft of my novel sat waiting for me. I laughedat the absurdity that an article on not being productive had compelled me to want to write. Somehow those well-chosen words had released me from the bondage of my “must do” list and offered me room to breathe. I could do whatever I wanted. And I wanted to write.
I padded over to my computer, excited to type, yet fearful. Could I even write anything? I tried not to think about it, worried the spell would break. I began to type:
I’m a firm believer that stories are essential – especially in times of crisis. Stories can transport us to other worlds, entertain and inform, teach us compassion, and help us make sense of our lives.Witnessing others’ stories is a deeply human act.It binds us.
So much goes into a compelling piece of writing. As an author, I’m always curious about what led up to the writer’s choice of topic. I love to uncover an author’s backstory. The bits and pieces of past trauma or confusion or joy that are woven together to create a book that others will cherish.
When I was twelve years old, I read Black Beauty. The author, Anna Sewell, experienced a tragic fall when she was fourteen, her ankles permanently damaged. Although she had great difficulty walking, it did not affect her ability to ride horses. She rode for hours each day, which allowed her to study horses and their language. She became fluent in equine behavior.
At the age of 51, laid up with weak ankles and no longer able to ride, Anna began to write Black Beauty, a story based on her love of a favorite horse from her childhood. It took her seven years to complete, the same number of years it took me to write Boot Language.
Anna Sewell died a few months after Black Beauty was published. She never knew that nearly 150 years later, readers would still adore her book. She never knew that Black Beauty would sell 50 million copies worldwide. And that as a result of her passion, England would pass laws protecting horses from their owners.
I can still feel that 12-year-old me hugging my tattered copy of Black Beauty when I reached the end. I held it out in front of me, staring at the subtitle: The autobiography of a horse, Translated from the original equine.’ A thrill for a girl growing up on a horse ranch, a girl who far preferred horses over humans.
Anna Sewell’s words changed me forever. In my eyes, she had performed a miracle, for, despite her trauma, she had woven a story that inspired others. Could I do the same?
Black Beauty taught me about gentleness and caring for those unable to speak for themselves. She taught me that I could be bold, even though I was ‘just” a girl. Anna Sewell inspired me to stand up for what was right and to dream that I, too, could create a thing of beauty from my trauma.